Yikes! Some books are wildly acclaimed until the film comes out; Alex Garland’s The Beach was well on its was to modern classic status until Danny Boyle’s 2000 film suddenly put it in the worst possible light. Boyle had an ideal muse in Ewan McGregor via Trainspotting, but when Fox offered a bigger budget if Boyle was to cast smoking hot Titanic star and proper American Leonardo DiCaprio in the central role, Boyle abruptly switched horses. That proved a major problem, because Garland’s book thematically hinges on the British nationality of the protagonist, but that’s only one of a number of wrong turns here.
Richard (DiCaprio) is Richard, a tourist in Thailand who hears about a secret beach where a community of rebels are living high on the marijuana plants that grow nearby. Richard hears much of this from Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle) a stereotypical comedy McBam Scotsman who appears babbling in Richard’s hotel, and then promptly turns up dead. Richard investigates, with the help of a French tourist (Guillerme Canet) and his beautiful girlfriend (Virgina Ledoyen), and they find their way out to the beach, where public-school head-girl Sal (Tilda Swinton) rules with an iron fist. Things go swimmingly, for a while, but Richard unwisely left a copy of his map back at the hotel, and soon other thrill-seekers are on their way, disrupting the island paradise…
The Beach made some coin back in the day, helped by some sleek visuals, choice musical cuts and a major star on the rise. But it really needs a remake, for tv or streaming, because Boyle and writer John Hodge make a complete bodge of this story, right down to an ending that will elicit shrugs and is very much counter to the book’s tone. Richard, as a Brit, is engaging in an abstract fantasy by evoking US military action in Vietnam as part of his atavistic decline; this plotline is muted if the protagonist is actually American, and the script isn’t adjusted accordingly to this cultural change. And the posho accents of the fellow beach community make this feel more like freshers week at uni than a tough group of societal outsiders, leading to murky plot development despite a brisk start.
The Beach should have been as popular and ubiquitous as the book it was based on, but the Enid Blyton meets Lord of the Flies notion at the heart of the writing goes for nothing here; it’s just a shonky realisation of ugly American guilt, and that’s nothing to do with Garland’s original story. Not surprisingly, the beach featured in The Beach was soon ruined by gawping visitors, a detail that fits in with the accidentally reductive, wrong-headed quality of the whole enterprise; maybe it’s time we went back to The Beach and gave the original book a more faithful adaptation than this.